• U.S.

The Press: Policing Chicago Cops

4 minute read

When a grand jury indicted three Chicago policemen last week for assaults on civilians, not a peep of protest emerged from the Chicago Tribune, a longtime champion of the city’s 13,000 men in blue. Reason: the Trib ‘s own reporting had prompted the indictments, as well as continuing investigations of five other patrolmen. Five months of relentless digging had produced an eight-part series that is probably the most thorough examination of police brutality ever published in a U.S. newspaper.

A teen-ager lost his left eye after being slugged by a policeman on the prowl for a much older suspect. An upper-middle-class housewife, wearing only a nightgown and housecoat, was dragged from her home, thrown down a flight of concrete stairs, handcuffed and belabored with obscenities by a police sergeant who claimed that she had urged her dog to attack him. During a family sidewalk fracas, a pregnant woman was pounded about the abdomen by a patrolman; although the woman has four other normal children, the infant born after that beating has a drooping eyelid, a bone protruding from his chest and a congenital heart defect.

Fearful Victims. The exposé was proposed by Investigative Reporter George Bliss, 55, whose muckraking team won a Pulitzer Prize last year for a series on voting fraud. Like many other Chicago newsmen, he had been hearing of police brutality for years. Last spring, Bliss became convinced that many accusations coming from blacks were true. He also suspected that police violence was not limited to the ghetto. Tribune City Editor Bill Jones agreed that the subject deserved full investigation and assigned Bliss three young reporters: Pamela Zekman, 29, a former social worker with four years experience on the Trib; William Mullen, 29, a rewrite man for most of his six years at the Trib; and Emmett George, 25, a black reporter who had joined the paper only a few weeks earlier after stints with U.P.I, and Jet magazine.

The team set to work in late June and was immediately denied access to the files of the police department’s internal affairs division, the office responsible for investigating brutality complaints. Eventually, however, a few policemen did cooperate. From these and other sources the Bliss team obtained hundreds of names of people involved in brutality cases. All told, the reporters investigated more than 500 cases, of which 37 were selected to appear in the stories.

The team found that many victims and witnesses were reluctant to talk. Says Zekman: “People were afraid of the police department. We had to convince them that we were sincerely trying to pursue a social evil.” Whenever this reticence was broken down, the team took extraordinary precautions to document material. To reduce the chances of reporting errors, key interviews were conducted by two newsmen. Injured victims were asked to provide medical records and given lie-detector tests. People with police records were dropped, as were witnesses whose accounts proved to contain even the smallest inaccuracies.

The reporters found their five-month task physically and emotionally exhausting. Emmett George was shocked to discover that race was relatively unimportant in police brutality: “I found that there are a lot of black officers involved. Some of the most sadistic people were black, and those people need to go off the force first.” Zekman was so moved by the case of the deformed boy whose mother had been beaten during pregnancy that she has arranged corrective surgery. The team rarely took a weekend off and usually worked double shifts. Jones last week was sending the four on vacations, hoping that their effort to police cops will now make the grand jury work overtime.

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